Virgin Galactic delays SpaceShipTwo test flight because of pandemic

Space

WASHINGTON — Virgin Galactic is postponing a test flight of its SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle that was scheduled for this week after the state of New Mexico reinstated a stay-at-home order in response to a surge of COVID-19 cases.

Virgin Galactic had planned to perform a powered test flight of SpaceShipTwo from Spaceport America in New Mexico between Nov. 19 and 23. The flight would have been the first powered test flight of the vehicle since February 2019 and the first ever from Spaceport America, where the company will commercially operate the vehicle.

That test flight is on hold after New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced a “reset” of the state’s pandemic restrictions Nov. 13 after a sharp increase in cases of the disease in the state. That includes reinstituting a stay-at-home order starting Nov. 16 through at least Nov. 30. The state had a similar order in place in the spring during the onset of the pandemic, closing nonessential businesses.

“We had hoped targeted crackdowns, limited hours of operation and amplified messaging and enforcement would make the difference and slow the spread and relieve our hospitals,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement about the new order. “The public health data make clear, however, that more aggressive restrictions are not only warranted but essential if we are to prevent mass casualties.”

Virgin Galactic, in a Nov. 16 statement, said it was rescheduling the SpaceShipTwo test because of that order as it limits activities in the state after consultation with officials there.

“With the health and safety of our team members in mind, and in accordance with the recent direction from the New Mexico Department of Health, we will be minimizing our New Mexico operations to the greatest degree possible,” Michael Colglazier, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, said in a statement. “While these new restrictions cause us to adjust our flight schedule, we take this pause in stride and will be prepared to resume our preflight procedures and announce a new test flight window as soon as we can.”

The company didn’t announce when a new flight might take place. Before this latest delay, Virgin Galactic said that this test flight, with two pilots on board, would be followed by another in the first quarter of 2021 with two pilots and four company employees board, then another late in the first quarter that will carry company founder Richard Branson.

Virgin Galactic blamed some delays in the flight test program this year on the pandemic. Colglazier, in a Nov. 5 earnings call, cited “scheduling and cost inefficiencies” because of the pandemic that pushed back completion of the next SpaceShipTwo vehicle at its Mojave, California, factory. “As you might imagine, building spaceships during a pandemic is materially less efficient than normal,” he said.

Many aerospace companies have been able to continue operations despite stay-at-home orders during the pandemic, citing federal classification as essential businesses. Those companies, though, often paused or slowed down activities during the onset of the pandemic as they enacted new processes to incorporate practices like social distancing.

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